Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Implications of Our Choices: Free Tuition and Religious Education

Free tuition -- whatever that precisely means -- has become oddly controversial in New Brunswick. In previous blogs, I tried to address some of the controversies but I tended to focus on those who opposed free tuition in order to make the case that education was good and that improving access to it carried with it a series of positive effects for the wider society. I also tried to argue that using the educational system and guaranteeing access to it (allowing one meets certain standards) regardless of incomes is neither a new nor a radical idea. It is generally consistent with the mainstream of post-WW II equality ideals that have animated the Canadian polity and that are, in my view, widely supported by the vast majority of the Canadian electorate. In fact, they are so widely supported that I suspect that the vast majority of Canadians would be surprised that anyone would question that idea that expanding access to education is a good thing.

More recent controversies are not in the public eye as much but are interesting to note because they raise interesting questions about the scope of state support for post-secondary education. Here in NB there are several small Christian universities. The only one of any size -- and, hence, the one around which controversy swirls -- is Crandall, a "private" Baptist university in Moncton, NB. Crandall is one of those institutions that, if it did not exist, someone would have to invent it. Both its opponents and proponents seem to desperately need it. Its opponents -- and I've addressed some matters relating to Crandall in the past -- see it as a discriminatory institution that is duplicitous (at best) in the perpetuation of homophobia. It is discriminatory - in that it maintains a faith test - that eliminates non-practicing Christians or people from other religious groups (say, Muslims or Jews) - as well as member of the LGBTQ  communities and -- potentially -- those of us who support them -- from employment or education.

It proponents, of course, have a different view. They tend to argue that Crandall provides educational choice and that the state should not censor or limit educational choice. As I've tried to indicate before in this blog, I am not in favour of a religious means test as a condition of state support for such things as grants. I would not necessarily consider myself a proponent of Crandall University -- in fact, I've argued against their faith test and its theology in the past -- but I do feel that having the state impose religiously-based conditions for is support (that is, in the case of Crandall that it needs to support a specific religious point of view with regard to equality for gays and lesbians) is problematic and a matter of concern. I've also tried to argue that there might be far more ground than we generally believe to accommodate different religious views within the mainstream of Canadian institutions without, in any way, harming those institutions or lessening our commitments to equality (be it religious or with regard to LGBTQ).

This kind of discussion has been raised again regarding NB policies for free tuition because Crandall -- as a private institution -- is disqualified.  The free tuition programme is intended to support so-called "public" post-secondary institutions (NBCC, Mt A, etc.). Hence, students at Crandall, because it is a private institution, do not qualify for the low-income free tuition programme.  Crandall proponents -- including one of its administrators -- have expressed concern about this and tend to argue that this see this as discrimination. Crandall's students, they argue, should not be excluded from this programme simply because they are attending a Christian university. The Crandall spokespeople whose comments I have read have, in fact, approached this issue in a measured and balanced way.  They are, in my view, involved in a bit of spin but the comments that I have read have been measured, logical and reasoned.

Not so, some of Crandall's other supporters who have used much more extreme language. They have mocked the current government (particularly but not exclusively its decision to create a Ministry of Celtic Affairs), accused it of lying about tax policy, and suggested that this free tuition policy amounts to an attack on religious freedom. They have organized a petition, brought it to Baptist churches to sign, and suggested that further attacks on religious might be forthcoming. Indeed, political pressure needs to be brought to bear on this government -- one chap at my church said that we need to show the government that "Christian votes count" -- potentially to the point of campaigning against the government so as to have it defeated.

This is a different question and begs important questions that I write about here because, I think, they go to heart of key issues in contemporary Canadian public life. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Should the state fund institutions that do practice discrimination if that discrimination is deeply believed, say for religious reasons? 
  • Is religion -- and particularly Christianity -- under attack? 
  • Should the state modify its position with regard to religion, say removing the tax free status of religious institutions? 
  • Should private institutions be included in free tuition programmes? 

I can't -- and likely shouldn't! -- answer all these questions today but I really do want to address one. It is this: religion is *not* under attack in New Brunswick today. The failure of the current government in NB to *not* include Crandall in its "free tuition" programme has nothing to do with religion. In my next blog, I'll try to address the question of whether or not it should have included Crandall, a question that, I want to argue, is far trickier than either the proponents or opponents of Crandall seem to believe or want to concede. 

There could be any number of reasons for excluding private institutions from this legislation. The most obvious one is that the taxpayers of NB are going to put some cash on the line and it is very difficult to regular private institutions (I'll leave the merits of this to one side). It is far easier to regulate "public" institutions like Mount A. Although it *does not* do this, because Mount A is a semi-public institution, the government can relatively easily regulate it. If it wanted -- and it does not want -- it could legislate my pay, change the way in which Mount A is administered, tell us (and it does do this) what we can charge students for tuition. It could, if it wanted, even insist that we meet certain standards say regarding pedagogical objectives. Mount Allison (the institution at which I work and so I use it as a handy example) is, moreover, bound by the specific requirements of the Charter. I personally do not consider these a burden (and you'll see why I make this point in a minute) but they do require that we conform to equality and human rights legislation. Unlike Crandall, for instance, we cannot specify a faith test for employment or enrollment. Said differently, the more extreme Crandall proponents make it seem like institutions like Mount A have all the benefits that have been denied to Crandall by virtue of their status as "public institutions" but this is not actually the case. There are, in fact, a series of obligations -- to conform to the Charter (which, again, I support) -- and to accept state regulation from which Crandall is exempt.

And Crandall is exempt from these obligations by virtue of its own design. The government did not choose to make Crandall a "private" institution. Crandall did. And, it did this to precisely to avoid the obligations under which Mount A operates. In other words, and more specifically, it did not want to be committed to the equality provisions of the Charter. There are, no doubt, other reasons as well but for one reason or another, the LGBTQ issue has come to the fore in recent years. Crandall also looks to impose (and I don't think this imposition is, in fact, a heavy burden for its students or staff but it is an imposition) specific moral standards and modes of living  as well as promoting certain beliefs to be held in common. This, too, is something that Mount Allison (as an example) is simply not allowed to do. Thus, while I do not consider a commitment to equality, say, to be a burden, the folks at Crandall did and they defined themselves as a private institution precisely to avoid this burden. 

Fair enough. I'm not at all certain I agree, but at the time these decisions were made and when they were revisited (as I am sure they periodically are), Crandall was operating within the framework of post-secondary educational law in NB and within the framework of the federal Constitution. We may not like the decisions that the folks who run and support Crandall made but ... that was their decision to make and they did not step outside the law or the Constitution to do it. 

The question of whether or not a self-defined private institution that has made that decision -- to be "private" as opposed to "public" --  in order to avoid Constitutional and legal obligations imposed by the state should have the benefit of state support is a different matter. And this -- not the question of religious free or religion being under attack -- is the question that is actually at issue. To the best of my knowledge, no serious person, institution or government official questions freedom of conscience in Canada (including NB). I have never heard any serious person question it and where I have heard religious freedom questioned (from people who are best considered unusual or extremist) it has been regarding non-Christians groups, particularly but not exclusively Muslims. 

Said differently, the question that the proponents of Crandall would have us ask -- should we have freedom of religion? -- is not actually the question that is at issue. The issue is *not* the right of Crandall to exist; it is not the right of students to attend Crandall; or even the right of students graduating from Crandall with their BEds, say, to be certified as teaches. The question is actually this: can Crandall live with the implications of its own choices? 

There is more to this and I'll get to that in a while, but when asked in this way, we have a different question. After all, as I said, no one opposes religious freedom. But, whether or not a religious institution that does not have to conform to post-secondary obligations imposed on other institutions should also be allowed to take part in programmes designed for those institutions ... is a different question. Said differently, and perhaps far too simply, should Crandall have its cake and eat it too? 

Asked in this -- what I would argue is a more accurate -- way, the extremism of some of Crandall's supporters becomes difficult to stomach. It becomes, at best, misinformation that is produced by fuzzy thinking that clouds (as opposed to clarifies) an important issue that New Brunswick should be discussing. 

I'll break off here because this blog is already too long but I suspect my point is now clear: we need to discuss the issue of "free tuition" accurately if we are going to advance this policy. 
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